The Neuroscience of Skill Development. What Happens Under the Hood When Learning

Published by Klint Ciriaco on

Optimal learning strategies save time and prevent headaches, but understanding the parts and mechanisms behind them can help you improve the protocol and even create your own. 

Think of a mechanic. Because he has intimate knowledge of a car, he not only knows how to fix it, he also knows how to make it faster. 

If you understand even just a little bit of how the nervous system works, it will save you time from doing ineffective learning strategies and help you discover new ways that are more effective. 

For example, when I’m learning something new, stress, frustration, and disappointment inevitably come along the way. They were the usual reasons why I gave up. But when I found out about  the material you’re about to learn, I was able to deal with those cognitive frictions and made learning more enjoyable and effective.

My hope is for you to gain the knowledge I have learned about the nervous system and its relation to learning so you can develop any skill in a way that works and is  fulfilling.

Let’s start with…

The Nervous System

You can think of it as the body’s electrical wiring system. It is made up of neurons (also called nerve cells) connected to each other to transmit information all over the body. You can also picture the neurons as a bunch of small wires joined together. Let’s look at one example of this system in action.

Let’s say you are learning how to sing. Your brain, which is the command center of the body, sends commands through the neurons to the body parts responsible for singing. 

Assuming you’re a beginner, the notes you sing are going to be out of tune.  Why? Because the wirings for singing aren’t strong enough yet. It’s like sending a text message through a bad signal. This is where practice comes into play. 

Of course, that process is not a one way ordeal. When you hear your voice, your brain will think, “Oh, I’m out of tune. I need to make some adjustments.” The repeated sending and receiving of signals strengthens the neural connections which leads you to develop your singing skills. 

Now, how does this explain frustrations when practicing? 

Enter…

Norepinephrine

This is also called adrenaline. It raises your heart rate, and it makes you focused and alert. 

When we perform a task we are good at, we don’t really think about it. Meaning, the wirings for that task are strong. But once we do something new, adrenaline kicks which cues the body to be alert –  “Whoa! I haven’t done this before. It’s a new stimulus so I need to pay attention.” 

Now, while practicing, you are not learning the skill on the spot. It happens during rest. Why? This is caused by…

Acetylcholine

You can think of acetylcholine as a highlighter. While practicing, this chemical gets released and it marks the spots in the neurons for changes. 

While resting, the marked spots are going to be strengthened. This explains why we struggle during one practice session, and then it becomes easier the next day. 

How does this information help?

By knowing that you don’t have to be perfect when practicing.

Oftentimes, we go into a practice session expecting to improve then and there. And when that expectation isn’t met, we get frustrated and quit. 

Quitting is a mistake because we rob ourselves the opportunity to release acetylcholine into the nerve cells which allows our skill to level up while resting. 

Going Back to Our Singing Example

During practice, you’ll experience discomfort for not hitting the notes. On top of that, the embarrassment of being out of tune can be demoralizing. Despite that, do the vocal exercises anyway for reasons mentioned above. Also, when the day comes where you can finally hit the notes right, you’re going to feel great, which is caused by a chemical called…

Dopamine

This is the chemical for reward. It is gets secreted when you anticipate getting a reward. Let’s say you are craving for a donut that is located across town. Despite your hunger and the 20 mile distance between you and the shop, you go anyway just to satisfy your cravings. Dopamine is at work in that situation. 

You can use this chemical to your advantage. Because skill development often takes time, the day to day practice sessions are not always enjoyable. But, if you anticipate the pay-off for the sacrifices you are making, it makes your training sessions more fulfilling. Think of the financial, emotional, and social rewards as your “donut.” Those rewards make the “drive” worth it.

Personal Note

I wished I learned about these things early in life because I probably would have performed better in school. 

For example, active recall was the most cognitively demanding way to learn for me. It entails reading a section from a book, closing it, and then recalling as much information as possible in 10-15 minutes by writing them  down. Rise and repeat. You can see why I avoided it. I resorted to inferior learning strategies such as re-rereading, highlighting, and underlining.

Little did I know that the active recall was a skill in itself and I should’ve kept practicing that way despite it being difficult.

Caveat

The level of difficulty for learning a skill should be challenging but not impossible to do. For example, it would not be advisable to let you lift a weight so heavy without learning the proper technique yet. Start at a moderate level of difficulty and then progress as you improve. 

Conclusion

If you have heard of flow, avoid the mistake of thinking you will be in that state while learning. In fact, flow only happens when you are a master at whatever you are doing. On the other hand, stress is your entrypoint to learning a new skill. So, struggle. Be patient. Work. And most important, don’t give up if your pursuit of a skill is worth it. 

You got this. 

-Klint 


Dr. Andrew Huberman of the Huberman Podcast is my main source for the topic I wrote above. He has a wealth of knowledge and I highly recommend you check him out.


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